‘This is the first time in my life I felt vulnerable’: La Jolla seniors reflect on life in the pandemic

The Chateau La Jolla dining room has new socially distant table arrangements.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States this year, information was scattered. But one thing was clear at the beginning: There was an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 for senior citizens.

For some local seniors, particularly those at the Chateau La Jolla senior-living community who spoke with the La Jolla Light, the pandemic and subsequent measures that were implemented were unlike anything they had ever seen, and they saw what was unfolding with a uniquely sensitive perspective.

“At first I thought the shelter-in-place measures were stupid because in my life I saw polio and the H1N1 flu and we never quarantined like this, ever. It was so dramatic,” said resident Neva Woolley, 85. “But there are many of us here that have ailments and it would be tragic to get COVID-19. I’m fortunate to have friends and family long distance that I am close with and can communicate with, and that has been a wonderful outlet, so I don’t really mind staying at home all the time.”

When staying at home became the norm, Woolley started attending Bible study online and said she’s mastering FaceTime, a video calling system on Apple devices.

But she acknowledges that not everyone has taken that approach. “This is a really bad thing for seniors who are not able to communicate with others, because they start to deteriorate mentally and physically,” she said.

“Many don’t have outside interests; that is what is hard on a lot of them. There are a few I know that are suffering. One resident is a heavy drinker and that is starting to show. I’ve seen some that have had to move because family thought it was safer. Some have deteriorated and they will be leaving. It has affected people here.”

Fellow resident Marlene Ministeri, 72, said that when she first heard about the coronavirus hitting overseas, she felt there was “nothing to worry about” in the United States.

“Like a lot of people, I thought we would get it under control quickly,” she said. “When it became obvious it was not going to get under control quickly, I became frightened because I saw what was happening in other facilities like nursing homes. I knew that we were vulnerable even in an independent living community.”

Chateau La Jolla resident Marlene Ministeri has a message for her neighbors.
Chateau La Jolla resident Marlene Ministeri has a message for her neighbors.

Ministeri said she has overcome a lot of illness in her lifetime. But “this is the first time in my life I felt vulnerable,” she said. “With other illness, I always felt in control because I knew what I had to do and I would do it. With this, I feel that I’ve lost control. Because it’s not about me doing the right thing anymore, it’s about everyone doing the right thing.

“I’ve watched the government open up because they are afraid of economic impact, and people on the street who don’t think it’s important to wear a mask and don’t see their vulnerability and putting others at risk. Over the months, I’ve become more fearful because I had to depend on other people, and some of those people are not dependable.”

Ministeri said her fear was amplified, and turned to anger, as she began treatment for breast cancer. She will begin radiation and infusions soon and has a year of therapy ahead.

“Since the pandemic started, I was vulnerable in that respect,” she said. “So for me, staying home was going to happen to a certain extent anyway … because I feel that I have to protect myself. It’s been hard, because other seniors feel they can go out for a walk. I feel vulnerable because people won’t wear a mask.”

However, Ministeri said she feels safe at Chateau due to the aggressive sanitizing and social distancing measures put in place at the onset of the pandemic.

Chateau La Jolla managing director Wendy Matalon said management reacted quickly this spring to the news that COVID-19 had hit the United States. Chateau immediately shut down its common spaces and canceled all activities, opting instead to take meals and activities to the seniors.

“We’re pretty hardcore about it,” Matalon said. “We started distributing masks and require everyone to wear them. ... And our staff is always wearing masks, face shields and gloves.”

To keep residents occupied, staff brought them playing cards, art supplies and journals, Matalon said. She also increased the weekly newsletter to five times a week to keep residents up to date, and encouraged residents to write about their feelings for inclusion in the newsletter.

A masked Chateau La Jolla staff member takes groceries to a resident.

Further, an extensive effort was made to clean every high-touch surface: elevator buttons, backs of chairs, books. The facility also started offering grocery service to limit trips to the store.

“We got some pushback from residents at first, but after a few weeks they seemed really grateful,” Matalon said. “Twice a year, we do a collection from the residents for the staff in lieu of tipping, and we’ve collected more than we ever have because they are grateful to the staff.”

Thus far, the measures appear to have kept COVID-19 exposure to a minimum. Matalon said one caregiver tested positive, so everyone who came in contact with that person was tested — 71 people in all. There were no other positive tests.

Now, as things have been slowly opening up, the patio has no more than two chairs at every table. The dining room furniture has been spaced out for social distancing with a policy of “no mask, no service.” The library has new rules, and only two people are allowed in at any given time. Physical fitness classes might resume soon, if they can be done safely.

“We’re figuring out ways to socially distance some activities, and I’m sure we’ll find more ways to do that and new activities we have not done before,” Matalon said. “Bingo is a good socially distant activity. I know it’s a stereotypical nursing home game, but we have residents that love their bingo. So that will be one of the first. We’ll start with one activity a day; we used to do three.”

But, Matalon said, “it’s no safer out there now than it was three months ago,” and that presents challenges. “The residents are restless. People want out. They are done with it,” she said. “One woman keeps asking, ‘Can I play bridge now?’ because that is her big social outlet, and I don’t know how to social-distance that. She might go elsewhere because I won’t have it. It’s frustrating and a challenge.”

One thing that might help, she said, is for people to keep in contact with the residents or other seniors living on their own.

“For the people that know residents, call them,” Matalon said. “Talk to them. Send them things in the mail. Make the people who live there make them feel like they are not forgotten.” ◆